Jewish World Review March 3, 2004 / 10 Adar, 5764

Jack Kelly

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Backgrounder: Haiti has been a mess since the time of Thomas Jefferson | Haiti is a mess. There is nothing new about this. Haiti has been a mess since the time of Thomas Jefferson. Once known as the "Pearl of the Antilles," Haiti is now by far the poorest nation in the Caribbean. Haitians like to blame the mess they are in on foreigners. But this is untrue. Except for the period 1915-1934 (about which more below), Haiti has been ruled — almost always badly — by Haitians since 1804.

France did not give up Haiti willingly. The Pearl of the Antilles was wrested from its grasp by Francois Dominque Toussaint L'Overture, who — beginning in 1791, led the greatest slave revolt in history. A brilliant general, Toussaint L'Overture routed French forces, and also a British army, which tried to pick up where the French left off.

Called the George Washington of Haiti, L'Overture — who believed in liberty and democracy — might have proved to be so, had French treachery not prevailed where French arms could not. Arrested by the French when he attended a conference under a flag of truce, L'Overture was locked up in a fortress in the Alps by the emperor Napoleon.

L'Overture was succeeded by Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who shared his military skill, but not his devotion to democracy. Dessalines won independence from France in 1804, and declared himself governor-general for life. This turned out to be less than two years. Dessalines was murdered by political rivals in 1806, establishing a pattern which has continued to this day. Haiti has had a dizzying succession of presidents, most of whose terms were cut short by assassination or coups de etat, of which there now have been 33.

Haiti's misery was interrupted only in the period 1915-1934, when Haiti was governed, in effect, by the U.S. Marines. President Wilson ordered intervention to prevent chaos after 7 Haitian presidents had been overthrown in 7 years.

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"The U.S. administrators ran the country fairly and efficiently, and by the time they left they could tick off a long list of achievements: 1,000 miles of roads and 210 bridges built, 9 major airfields, 1,250 miles of telephone lines, 82 miles of irrigation canals, 11 modern hospitals, 147 rural clinics," wrote Max Boot in the Nov. 2003 issue of Current History.

Things went to Hell after the Americans left, with Haitians falling under the control of the dictators Duvalier, father and son, who continued the practice of Haitian rulers of looting the country for personal gain.

"Baby Doc" Duvalier, under pressure from the Reagan administration, fled the country in 1986, and in 1990 Haiti had the closest thing it's ever had to a fair election. The winner was Jean Baptiste Aristide, a Marxist and renegade Catholic priest. But Aristide was ousted a year later in a coup led by his security chief.

In 1994, President Clinton sent 20,000 U.S. troops to Haiti to restore Aristide to power. The Americans built roads, clinics, etc., but after U.S. troops left in 1996, Aristide appointed his thugs to head the American-trained police, used them to murder political enemies, and pocketed much of the $2.6 billion in economic aid the U.S. sent.

Aristide was re-elected in rigged elections in 2000 (voter turnout was only 5 percent, according to the Council on Foreign Relations). But high-handed tactics and worsening conditions stripped him of popularity. The handwriting was on the wall for Aristide when the Cannibal Army, a gang of thugs once allied with him, switched sides after their leader was murdered, they think on Aristide's orders.

With the Cannibal Army joining the democratic opposition, what remains of the Haitian business community, and supporters of the former dictatorship against him, the tide against Aristide was irresistable. At the end, he had more support among Democrats in the United States than he did among Haitians.

Now Aristide is in exile, the Marines (along with French and Canadian troops) are back in Port au Prince, and the natives are hopeful.

"We are all awaiting the American soldiers to come and provide security from the chimeres (Aristide thugs named after a fire-breathing monster in Haitian folklore) and take their big guns away," Bab St. Croix, an agronomy student, told the Christian Science Monitor. "Aristide took everything for himself, but now maybe we can make Haiti better."

No one knows how long the Marines will be in Haiti this time, or how difficult will be the task of restoring order. Given the history of the Marines, they will make things better. Given the history of Haiti, it won't last long.

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JWR contributor Jack Kelly, a former Marine and Green Beret, was a deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force in the Reagan administration. Comment by clicking here.

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